“James! Are we heating the whole world now? Close the door!”
The boy groaned and complied, but not before taking one last look around the back alley. He didn’t see the door latch shut behind him, but he heard its distinctive click and felt it in his gut.
I should have made a run for it, he thought.
“James! Quit daydreaming when there’s work to do!”
“Yes, Mom,” he said, but she had already moved on to other things. This nook was the only relatively quiet place in the shop, sandwiched between the bathroom and the kitchen. Here resided the old metal shelves full of cleaning supplies and a doormat saturated with a decades worth of street salt and crumbs.
Nothing magical here, which James found comforting as the only non-magical person working at Farmers Family Bakery. In that regard, he had more in common with the mop than he did with his parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even the stragglers who worked here all with talents that it was feeling like he’d never have.
But there wasn’t time to dwell on that, not two days before Christmas.
He made his way back to the kitchen and resumed his silent work washing dishes, as was tradition for Farmers whose abilities had not yet presented themselves. No one else had still been stuck at this station when they were 14, but hey, there was a first time for everything.
“James! Turn the faucet off, you’re going to overflow!”
“Huh?” It was a moment too late. Eli shoved him out of the way to turn the water off, but not before the soapy suds spilled over the side of the giant metal tub and onto the floor.
“Man,” Eli said, reaching for the nearest towel. “We do not have time for this.”
“Sorry,” James said feebly, but the word did more harm than good.
James’s mom slammed the bowl of cookie dough down on the counter. “Sorry! He says sorry! This is our busiest season, James. You’re old enough to know better. Don’t say sorry, just do the job. That’s all we ask.”
He fought the reflex to apologize again, instead biting his tongue while heat crept across his cheeks and down his neck. He nodded, keeping his head low.
“Dude, it’s okay,” Eli said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Aunt Rachel just tense, you know?” James nodded again. “Just wait. A few hours from now we’ll all be chilling at Grandma’s dinner table upstairs, chowing down, and she’ll be laughing along with the rest of us.”
James was less sure. He dared to glance over his shoulder. Mom was angrily muttering at her spoons, pointing at them to stir faster while she looked around the messy countertop for more icing.
“Maybe,” James said.
Two small hands wrapped around his left arm and gave a small tug. “I know what you need,” Grandma said. “Give me your apron and gloves, you get your coat. Go help with the deliveries.”
James looked down at the tiny matriarch of the family with wide eyes. “I shouldn’t. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“And I don’t want a sad grandson!” Grandma smiled, reaching up to cup his smooth cheek. “I can handle my daughter in law perfectly fine. You need to get out. Get the orders from Uncle John, then ride along with Betsy.
“Betsy?” This day had just gone from bad to worse.
“Only two more stops!” The blonde and blue-eyed beauty checked off their latest stop on her clipboard before buckling up and starting the van. “This afternoon is flying, isn’t it?”
James said nothing.
Then again, James didn’t usually say anything to Betsy. It had been drilled into him from a young age that if he didn’t have anything nice to say, it was better not to say anything at all.
And since he was simultaneously jealous of Betsy and half in love with her, he kept his mouth shut.
When she first came to the shop, he was 12 years old and already overdue for his magic to show up. He was ready for it. He knew the rules, he understood the consequences, he wanted to finally move up in the kitchen and the family business, to be a part of the tradition of making literally magical treats.
Betsy wasn’t even part of the family, but she was only working at the bakery for two months when she’d been able to get the rolling pin to work from across the room. No one had even let her in on the fact that it was a magical bakery yet, so imagine her shock.
It’d be so much easier to hate her if she wasn’t so nice and if James hadn’t had a huge crush on her already.
“Someone’s being especially quiet today,” Betsy said as they drove. She turned off the radio that had been cheerily playing Christmas tunes all day. “Care to share?”
She shook her head. “I know fine. You, sir, are not fine.”
“How would you know? You’ve been away at college. Maybe this is fine for me.”
“You bring up a valid point,” she agreed. “Except for the flaw in your logic. I’ve only been at college, what, three months? I’ve known you for two years. And even though you’ve always been quiet as a church mouse around me, I still see you with your family and your friends. I still know you. And this – ” she waved her finger around, drawing a circle in the air encompassing all of him from his dark floppy hair to his pale blue eyes to his reddening cheeks “ – this isn’t you being fine.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay.” They drove on for half a block in silence. “But here’s the thing.”
“You may not want to talk about it, but I think you should talk about it.”
“I think I want you to leave me alone and you should leave me alone.”
“You keep things bottled up and someday you’re going to pop.”
“Well thank goodness you all have your magic! Just wave a hand around and put me back together. Don’t take too much time, though. There are dishes to be done.” The bitter words left a rotten taste in his mouth and a dark feeling in his heart.
“Oh James,” Betsy sighed. “You’ve been holding on to that for way too long.”
“You wouldn’t understand. You just showed up and right away…” He crossed his arms and turned away from her, his tear-filled eyes pretending to focus on the view out the window. “And I’m still waiting. And I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. How can I make it right if I don’t know what I’m doing wrong?”
He felt a nudge on his left arm and turned his head just enough to see what Betsy was offering him: a thermos.
“Come on. Chocolate milk. Don’t act like it’s not your favorite.”
James silently took the cup, the outer metal cold in his bare hands. “You remembered.”
“Of course I do. Those first few months when you still talked to me were so special. Everyone else, they were my coworkers. You were my friend until one day when you weren’t.”
She shrugged. “I’m not saying I blame you. Heck, the look on your face when I found out what was going on… just thinking about it breaks my heart. I gained a super power but I lost something just as important, and I’m trying real hard here to change that. Here.” She pulled over in front of a modest ranch house, its only holiday décor a faded strand of colored lights hanging over the porch. “Why don’t you get this one.”
James shifted, still clutching the cup tight in his hands. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t.” The two got out of the van and walked around to the back, Betsy double-checking the order on her clipboard. “Two boxes of the holiday variety pack?”
James opened the back doors and grabbed two boxes from the shelf. “Got ‘em.” He looked at the delicious creations through the clear plastic top of the box and frowned.
“Some of them are cracked and crumbled.” It felt unfair and rotten. It already wasn’t looking like they’d have a white Christmas, and if the house was any indication, this family probably didn’t have a whole lot of cash to spare in the name of Christmas cheer. Yet they still ordered cookies.
Betsy held out her hands. “Can I see?” James handed over the boxes and watched her evaluate the sad state of the desserts. “No problem.” She pulled off a glove with her teeth and her bare fingers danced in the air over the box. He’d seen it hundreds of times before, but James’s breath still caught in his chest as the cookies reassembled themselves. Betsy even did it one better, making the colors on the frosting even brighter than before. Steam started to gather inside against the plastic as a heavenly smell reached their noses.
“It’s like they’re just out of the oven,” James said in awe.
“Piece of cake.” Betsy smiled as she handed the boxes back along with the order slip and put her glove back on. “Or not, really. Now go on and do the fun part.”
A weird sort of nervousness fluttered to life in the pit of James’s stomach as he walked up the driveway and to the front door. It wasn’t like when Mom was in a bad mood in the kitchen – he knew what to expect then, how to behave, what to do and what not to do.
No, this nervousness came from not knowing. Jitters and what-ifs and prayers to please not screw up. It was an eternity between ringing the doorbell and someone answering it.
The boy who opened the door was about James’s age, maybe a little younger. They couldn’t have looked more different – where James was thin and gangly, all sharp edges with pale skin, light hair, and light eyes this boy was shorter and rounder with hair and eyes the same color as the chocolate chips waiting inside the boxes – yet there was something familiar about him.
It was his expression, James realized with a jolt. He saw it in the mirror every morning. There was that longing for not necessarily more, just better. Another chance at a fresh start. For today to suck a little less than yesterday.
“D-delivery,” James said, offering the packages towards the screen door that still stood closed between them.
The other boy shook his head. “I don’t think so. We can’t…” He blushed. “We don’t order things.”
“Oh.” James felt like a prize fool, but it wasn’t like Betsy to pull pranks. He glanced at the address next to the door on the mailbox, then down at the order slip. “You must have. This is the right address.”
“Positive.” James read Uncle John’s neat handwriting, clear as day. “It says right here to deliver two boxes of holiday cookies to 17 Brookside Lane. Order…”
James smiled and looked up. “Order has been placed and paid for anonymously.”
The screen door swung open and the boy stepped out. “Really?”
The boy’s jaw dropped, his lips curving into a perfect “o” as he accepted the desserts. “They’re still warm,” he said with awe.
“Yeah, you too! Merry Christmas!” The boy smiled and gave a small wave before closing the door. “Mom! Dad! Come and see!” James heard him yell as he walked down the driveway.
Betsy was grinning as James climbed into the van. “Mission accomplished?”
“Yeah. Thanks for letting me do one.” He buckled in, ready to go, but Betsy looked past him at the house. “You okay?”
She shook off the shadow that had crossed over her bright features as soon as it came. “Never better. Time to head back.”
James had his chocolate milk halfway to his lips when he froze mid-motion. “You said we had two more.”
“You saw the back. There’s nothing else back there. The run is done, good sir.”
Panic set James’s pulse through the roof. “We must have messed up. I must have given someone the wrong thing.”
“We got it right.”
“But then there should be something left! I must have miscounted or read something wrong!”
“Mom is going to kill me! And she’s already annoyed with me as it is!”
“James!” Betsy never yelled, but her slightly raised, definitely humored voice got him to snap out of it. “Calm down and drink your hot chocolate.”
“It’s not hot chocolate,” James said. “You said it was chocolate milk.”
“Is that why your mug is steaming?”
“What are you – “ But sure enough, steam was rising through the drinking whole in the top of the travel mug. “You heated it up for me?”
Betsy shook her head. “I did not. You know me. I can never seem to get my magic to work right when I have gloves on.”
“But… but…” James took a tepid sip, the warm drink heavenly on the cold day. He looked to Betsy, confused. “But I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even trying.”
“Welcome to the club, buddy. That’s the point. You did do something, though.”
“Well, yeah, okay I was holding the cup.”
She waved off his train of thought. “I don’t just mean literally. You saw someone else with a need greater than your own. Just by being a decent person, you made their day a little better.”
“But I didn’t send them those cookies.”
“Maybe not, but you were the vessel. That matters just as much. That’s the secret.”
He took another drink as he thought over her words, but James was still confused by her puzzle. “I don’t get it.”
“What matters more, being a good wizard or being a good person?”
“Well I want to be both.”
“Come on, James. I’m being serious.”
“So am I. But I mean, I know that being a good person is more important.”
She nodded with approval. “Exactly. And when you realized that, that’s when your magic showed up. That’s how it is for everyone at the bakery. If you’re not a good person without magic, then you’ll never be good enough with it.”
It was a nice notion, but something about the logic troubled him. “So does that mean I wasn’t a good enough person until now?
“Oh James!” Betsy reached over and patted his knee. “You have always been a good person. You try so hard. I think today you realized that sometimes trying is enough. You don’t have to be perfect. Magic doesn’t make you special. You’re already special.”
It was with those words that James became pretty sure he was now three-quarters in love with Betsy all over again.
“I didn’t do anything. I’m just glad you and I are good again.”
The ancient van squeaked to a halt in the back alley behind the bakery and Betsy killed the engine. She led the way over to back door, the same one James had been wanting to escape through only a few hours ago. “You coming?”
For the first time in a very long while, James was actually happy to be going inside. Not just because he had his magic now, though that was a definite plus.
This time, he felt like he used to when he was little. Just being himself, being with the people he loved and who loved him, that was enough.